Monday, February 22, 2016

Dying with Dignity: Why the Detroit Lions Should Quit

Danville, Kentucky -- I am firm believer in never giving up; in putting your heart into something until you have nothing left to give. I believe in taking no days off, holding nothing back, putting it all on the line, going all-in, and leaving it all on the field. Yet, even I, know that sometimes, you have to fold: cut your losses, and quit while you can.

Rax Roast Beef knew when to quit. Folks, let me tell you about one of my favorite restaurants of all time. I'm a Danville man, born and raised. Rax -- based in blue-collar Ironton, Ohio -- used to be a staple beef-joint in the rust belt. Folks traveling through West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky during the glorious '80s knew that Rax was the best eating a man could get when home was behind and the open road ahead.

Rax embodied the spirit of the 80s. Thanks to Reagan, it was morning in America again. Americans were working hard and being rewarded for it; we were free to spend our disposable income on heaping stacks of beef and melted cheddar cheese, thanks to low taxes and small government. Every baked potato served by Rax came with not only luscious toppings, but also a feeling of optimism and boundless opportunity. It was a great family atmosphere; I used to take the wife and my children there every Sunday afternoon to eat a Deluxe Ham melt and watch the Bengals game.

At Rax's peak, it was an unparalleled fast-food phenom. 504 locations in 38 states, and even expansion into the international market. Yet, all good things must pass. Thanks to globalization, even the reawakening of the 80s gave way to the crushing disappointment of the 90s. By 1996, two years after the arrival of NAFTA, Rax filed for bankruptcy. Rax, a mom-and-pop fast-food chain, just couldn't compete with mega-franchises like Arby's and Wendy's. Many jobs were lost, and the Mid West was never the same. In spite of its colossal implosion, I respect Rax. They knew when to quit, and because of it, the franchise has down-scaled but persevered.

If only the Detroit Lions knew when to quit, like Rax did. There may not be a franchise in sports history that has inflicted as much pain on its fans as the Detroit Lions. I'm a Bengals fan, but I've seen firsthand the misery that this franchise breeds amongst its followers. My uncle, a life-long Lions fan and native of Flint, watches the team year in and year out, yearning for a championship, but always disappointed.

One of the oldest franchises in the NFL, with a loyal and long-suffering fan base. No playoff wins since 1991, when George H.W. was president and Jeb was just a starry-eyed youngster looking for his shot. No Super Bowl appearances in franchise history. And thanks to a disastrous off-season, nothing to look forward to in 2016.

Why the Lions are Hopeless

Two events this off-season have caused me to abandon all hope for this franchise.

First, the Fords have failed to take care of their own.

Joique Bell was the single most inspirational story of the Detroit Lions over the past half-decade. Born in humble circumstances in nearby Benton Harbor, Michigan, his untapped raw potential caught the eye of discerning scouts. He went on to play for Division II school Wayne State University, in mid-town Detroit. It wasn't glamorous. While a student at Wayne State, Joique was broke. There was no special treatment for athletes or fancy living facilities:
While preparing for his senior season at Wayne State, he had to survive an apartment so rough, his mother offered him $500 to move out. Rent was $150.
"I had to live in this (expletive) dungeon," Bell says. "It was triflin'. Dirt would just come off the floor. There was a pink shower, but the bottom of it was just black. It was the nastiest thing I've ever seen.
"My mom was crying because it was so filthy."
Bell went on to win the Harlon Hill Trophy – Division II's version of the Heisman – that year. (via MLive)
To make ends meet, Joique worked as a security guard for the Lions at Ford Field. He bounced around the NFL, notably getting cut by Bill Belichick, before landing on the Lions. Playing for his hometown team, Joique had great success and was a fan favorite. Bell was the go-to guy when the ball needed to be pounded across the goal-line, a master of lowering his shoulder and grinding his way to touchdowns. His uplifting life narrative was a source of pride and inspiration for a city that was down on its luck and needed a hero. Joique was just like his city: young, scrappy, and hungry.

Joique, the kid who beat the odds and became a star, was unceremoniously cut by the Lions on February 16th, 2016. That's not how you treat family.

Second, Martha Ford's betrayal of the city's proudest son might actually be only the second most depressing thing to happen to the Lions this off-season. The only thing harsher than the Michigan winter was the news that Calvin Johnson, an all-time great receiver and franchise cornerstone, was debating retirement.

The parallels to Barry Sanders' premature retirement are striking: a future hall-of-famer with years of productivity ahead of him, hanging the cleats early, leaving the Lions in disarray as he walks out the door.

Calvin Johnson has one thing going for him: he knows when to quit. Football is a brutal sport, that breaks the bodies of even the most mighty athletes. Why risk his well-being and health to play for an irrelevant team? Can you blame Calvin? This Danville man can't.

The writing is on the wall for the Lions. The ownership cuts the most likable players and drives the most talented ones out of the league. The Lions' divisional competition is not getting any less formidable. Adrian Peterson and the Vikings aren't going anywhere. Aaron Rodgers and his miraculous hail-mary throwing abilities aren't going anywhere. It's hard to chart a Detroit Lions path to the playoffs when they have to fill a Calvin Johnson-sized hole in the roster. Not under the current ownership.

The Fords have always been a family that brings both great joy and great despair. The Fords brought us the Model-T and the assembly-line; but they also brought us offshoring and the desolation of rust-belt economies after the 2008 economic collapse. As owners of the Lions, they brought us Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson, only to drive these legends away from the franchise with their incompetence and mismanagement. The Fords brought us affordable automobiles; but they are also the family that brought us mass employee layoffs, and also drafted Joey Harrington; the promising young QB whose spirit was slowly broken by playing for an aimless franchise.


The weight of the Lions' sorrowful history can only lead me to draw one conclusion: the Fords should terminate this lowly franchise. Dissolve the Detroit Lions organization. Make a new expansion team in Mexico City, or London. Or just send the team to Vietnam, with the rest of Detroit's manufacturing jobs. If the team can't win playoff games, has never appeared in a Super Bowl, and can't retain inspirational and legendary talents like Joique and Megatron, then the team doesn't deserve to exist. The loss of this franchise will hurt Detroit-area football fans initially, but it will save them from heartache in the long run.

Those who remember the hey-day of Rax know where its surviving locations can be found. I still frequent a dusty old Rax in Parkersburg, West Virginia, from time to time. When I eat there alone, if I close my eyes and let the savory notes of roast beef linger on my tongue, I can almost feel the hope of the Reagan administration again.

Similarly, we will always have the fond memories of the undeniably good moments of the Lions franchise: Barry's 2,000 yard rushing season. Calvin breaking Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a single season. The unsung competence and consistency of longtime kicker Jason Hanson. The tragic comedy of 0-16 season in 2008. Third-string quarterback Mike McMahon leading the team to its first victory in Week 14 vs the Minnesota Vikings in 2001. The Matt Stafford-led 4th quarter comebacks of 2011.

Don't let the Lions become like Jeb Bush: trudging through failure after failure, endlessly prolonging their inevitable defeat, by refusing to gracefully bow out. It's time for the Lions to die with dignity. Only then will it be morning in Detroit again.